When Sporting Kansas City veteran Graham Zusi went down with an injury in May, Kayden Pierre was on the outside looking in.
Zusi missed nearly a entire month of action, and out of a possible 450 minutes available to his backups, Pierre just played 151.
Cam Duke and Ben Sweat played more than Pierre during that stretch; the 19-year-old directly behind Zusi on the Sporting KC depth chart couldn’t get minutes even when the starter was injured.
That was somewhat unexpected. Before the start of this season, when Sporting KC and manager Peter Vermes traded Jaylin Lindsey to expansion team Charlotte FC, they viewed Pierre as a rising talent, a young and talented player who was ready for his shot.
“Obviously Lindsey had more experience than KP, so that’s a risk on our part,” Vermes said. “Charlotte was interested and we came to a deal, but it was (made) knowing that KP had really good qualities, and so it was now for us to try to see how fast that could get accelerated.”
Pierre — the 18th homegrown-player signing in Sporting KC’s history — didn’t make the jump as soon as he, or they, had hoped.
“That’s when I took a look in the mirror and said I need to step up,” Pierre told The Star. “I need to start focusing more, have better habits on and off the field. This is my time to play and prove that I deserve to play more.”
Pierre started pushing for time, and by the end of June, he began to break through. He started and put in a complete performance against Union Omaha, going the entire 90 minutes.
In the following match, a road loss at Seattle, Zusi was injured and forced to sub off the field. In turn, Pierre subbed into the game. He had finally earned his long-sought playing time.
Pierre started and went the full 90 minutes in the next four matches, even making his first career assist — he set up captain Johnny Russell for the tying goal on July 13.
“I started to just grow in confidence,” Pierre said. “After the first game, you feel good — you’re like, ‘OK, I’m good enough to do this.’ And then you keep on playing and eventually it just comes naturally. You’re just playing the game, the game I’ve played for 16 years.”
Pierre’s maternal grandfather and father got him started in soccer when he was just 3. His grandfather had once played for the Jamaican National Team.
“He had four daughters, and soccer wasn’t as big back then for girls as it is now,” Pierre said. “So when I was his first grandchild, he was all over me. Of course, he wanted me to play soccer, and then I ended up loving it. That’s how we built a very good bond.”
His father was a good player as well, having played at Lawrence Technological University in Michigan.
“It was just bound to happen for me,” Pierre said with a laugh.
As the years went by, Pierre was soon enough playing for a youth club in Michigan. The family traveled to Indiana for a showcase tournament while he was in middle school, and that’s where he drew the eye of the Sporting KC scouting staff. They immediately noticed his athleticism.
Vermes recalled former Wizards teammates Chris Henderson and Chris Klein playing with the energy of racehorses.
“They could go up and down all day long,” Vermes said. “That’s what (Pierre) is. He’s athletic. He’s got a great engine to go up and down the field. He has incredible ability to eliminate players on the dribble, and he continues to get better with his passing.”
Pierre views Brazilian star Dani Alves as the best right back of all time, but he also idolizes Kyle Walker of Manchester City, saying, “He never gets beat.”
In the early stages of their careers, many players can rely primarily on their athleticism to get the better of opponents. But eventually, as those talented young players rise through the system, those around them become more athletic, too. That’s when being able to read and react separates the best from the rest.
Away from soccer, Pierre’s family also instilled in him a love of chess. He started playing when he was 10 and joined a chess club at his school.
“I really do think it helped me during that time on the field,” Pierre said. “It helped me think quicker and have different ideas in my head.
“Obviously, when you’re playing chess, there are millions of moves and possibilities. I think that just helped me process things quicker on the field when I see things a certain way.”
Vermes, not to mention Pierre’s teammates, notice that, too.
“What he has more so than a lot of guys is he has a really good ability to take in information, and being able to comprehend and implement it very quickly,” Vermes said. “A lot of guys don’t have that ability he does.”
Now that Pierre is blossoming as a pro, he’s doing so rapidly. Zusi in particular has seen what Pierre can do and is excited about his potential.
The transformation is more than just mental. Zusi said Pierre has grown 2 or 3 inches in the past year alone.
“When he starts filling out a little bit, he’s just going to be a monster,” Zusi said. “I’m excited to see him grow in the next couple years, to continue to get experience and grow as a player.”
The one aspect of Pierre’s development where Zusi would perhaps like to see additional growth?
“He’s still a shy, quiet kid,” the veteran said. “But he doesn’t need to be, because his play backs it up. He should be able to feel confident in putting people in their spot. If he can get that part of his game, he’s going to be a complete player.”